The Lion in Winter

By: Brooke Nix

The Dark Ages of western history contained plague, famine, and war. However, it also saw the union of two people in the twelfth century that continues to inspire people today. The marriage of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine forever changed history, and in so doing, provided the focus for the 1968 film, Lion In Winter. In this two and half hour drama, director Anthony Harvey chooses one of the most interesting royal couples in English and French history upon whom to base his movie, Harvey was aided in the development of the movie by a screen adaptation of James Goldman’s Broadway play, Lion In Winter. The film earned seven Academy and Golden Globe nominations each, probably due in part to its star-studded cast. Peter O’Toole takes on his second role of playing Henry II (he also played him in the 1964 film Becket), and Katharine Hepburn plays his devious queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine. They are joined by Anthony Hopkins as Richard, John Castle as Geoffrey , and Nigel Terry who plays John. These three actors helped to complete the royal family while a young and dashing Timothy Dalton portrays Philip II of France.

The events in this story take place at Christmas time in 1183, and focus primarily on an elderly Henry who is battling with the issue of naming an heir to the throne. The story opens with his son John fencing as Henry watches. Quickly, the audience sees the king’s fatherly love for his favorite son of sixteen. The king, at the age of fifty, speaks of his love for his son with his mistress, Alais (played by Jane Merrow), sister of Philip II, who is actually closer in age to John than she is to Henry. It is at this time that Henry swears his love to Alais regardless of his marriage to Eleanor of Aquitaine. He then calls his captain, William Marshall to summon his other two surviving sons, Geoffrey and Richard, along with Eleanor to the castle in Chinon, France in order to celebrate the Christmas holidays. In knowing that Henry has a mistress, the audience realizes that the marriage between him and Eleanor has become one of constant argument. Therefore, because of these arguments but more importantly due to the fact that Eleanor has conspired against Henry several times on behalf of her sons, Henry keeps her imprisoned in the Salisbury Tower in England all year, and only lets her out for the holidays.

As all arrive, it is clear that the feuding brood is not one big happy family. Throughout the entire movie, the family members make snide remarks to each other, which are extremely comical to the viewer who is really listening to the dialogue. The entire theme of the movie is whom Henry will name as his heir. This was a genuine problem historically, because the oldest of the sons of Henry and Eleanor , Henry III, had recently died. This would automatically make Richard, the second oldest son, the heir presumptive. Unfortunately, Henry’s favor for the youngest son, John, inclines Henry to want to place him on the throne in Richard’s place. Richard is Eleanor’s favorite. This leaves the middle son, Geoffrey, Duke of Brittany, out in the cold to connive with anyone in order to usurp the throne for himself. He is willing to sell the entire family in order to be king.

It is also at this time that Philip II, King of France, and brother of Alais, arrives. He too comes for the holidays, but for business as well. It seems that Alais was taken in by the English royal household at the age of seven as a betrothed bride for Richard. Her dowry, which was of extreme importance in those days, consisted of the Vexin, a territory in France crucial to both England and France. The acquisition of these lands not only brought power to Henry as King of England and Duke of Normandy, but also the love of the young mistress. What Philip really seeks is that Richard, who has control of the Aquitaine (a territory in the southern part of France), should marry Alais in order to strengthen an alliance with Philip. Henry, wanting John to be king and wanting to keep Alais for himself, refuses Philip’s proposal. The quarrel over the marriage of Alais and over who will become king persists throughout the remainder of the movie.

Lion In Winter is a good film, but unfortunately it tends to drag with excessive and convoluted dialogue, reminding the audience that what may work well in an intimate theater may be less acceptable on screen. The fact that Henry cannot make up his mind as to whom he will place on the throne combined with his and Eleanor’s never-ending quarrels can become rather tedious. Yet on the other hand, the film is rewarding to the patient through the cutthroat dialogue that all of the characters maintain. The film does contain incidents of great historical significance and provides the viewer with a mass of information crammed into the two and a half hour film. There are some historical references made about occurrences within the lives on the royal family that are not fully explained and could be somewhat confusing to the average viewer who is not familiar with the history of the royal family.

Whether or not the royal family spent the Christmas of 1183 together at Chinon is unknown. They are said to have spent many Christmases together in various places throughout England and their territories in France. At times, one or more members were absent and at other times, more of Henry and Eleanor’s children joined them for holidays. The couple had eight children in all, and Eleanor had two daughters from her previous marriage to Louis VII, who was Philip II’s and Alais’ father. However, the movie never mentions any of the children besides Richard, Geoffrey, John and the deceased Henry III. What is known is that in 1182, Henry II made a last testament before spending Christmas with the three boys at Caen, France. At Christmas, or Michaelmas of 1183, he did in fact require that Richard hand over Aquitaine to John. Richard refused and John, conspiring with Geoffrey, invaded part of Richard’s territory, but accomplished little in swaying the people of the land to reject Richard. Richard responded by invading Brittany. At this, Henry called all of them to him to stay throughout the remainder of 1184, where it is said that they had councils as to who would succeed to the throne. Nothing was said to clarify the succession and Henry’s policy of 1185-86 seems to have clearly been to keep his sons uncertain about their future. This policy was not easy to sustain, however, and in March of 1186 (not Christmas of 1183), Philip II met with Henry to discuss a settlement about the tenure of the Vexin, which was originally brought to Henry by Margaret, wife of Henry III. The Vexin has been transferred to the dowry of her sister, Alais, upon Henry’s death. Richard and Alais had been betrothed as children since 1161 and she had been in Henry’s custody ever since. This was quite a common occurrence as betrothed wives often lived at the court of their future husbands. The meeting in 1186 ended in scandal since Alais had become the king of England’s mistress. The meeting was a failure in terms of resolving matters among his sons and Philip II.

Katharine Hepburn does an excellent job of portraying Eleanor. However, according to research, her character’s traits have been mixed with legend. A truly accurate depiction of her is probably forever lost to the annals of time. She was married to Louis VII prior to her marriage to Henry, and the eleven-year age difference between Eleanor and the English king may have contributed to some of their problems. She is said to have had at times a wild and unruly character, even riding topless and dressing as an Amazon on the second crusade to the Holy Land. She is said to have had a multitude of lovers including Henry’s father, Geoffrey Plantagenet, as well as a host of troubadours whose art was flourishing at the time. Henry also had a multitude of sexual partners and illegitimate children, but he is said to have truly loved a young noble woman : “Fair Rosamund,” as she was referred to became a subject of legend and song. In 1175, Henry sought annulment of his marriage because of Rosamund, but her death in 1176 ended the affair. Throughout the ages it has been rumored that Eleanor poisoned Rosamund, but this can only be hearsay since Henry had her locked up at Salisbury at the time.

The movie is quite accurate on the question of favoritism. Richard was conceived in Eleanor’s homelands, and remained with his mother throughout the majority of his life, as his father was away on kingly duties and war. There were rumors of his so-called homosexual inclinations toward Philip II, but this did not seem to hamper him in his reign from 1189-1200. Although not as fanciful as some modern day filmmakers would probably like it to be, the drab castles with hay on the floor, and the not so rich royal wardrobe remind viewers that the twelfth century was truly a dark age of time, not only for Henry’s family, but for all of the human race. Some historians moralize that Angevin family troubles were a result of Eleanor’s scandalous divorce from Louis VII and quick marriage to Henry. Others believe they were Henry’s punishment for keeping mistresses. However, historians do stress that not too much should be made about the family’s dysfunctional nature or to a Lear-like quality. For a more in depth look at the complete reign of Henry II, W.L. Warren’s book, Henry II, provides an excellent depiction of the king. For a look at the life, legend, and literature surrounding Eleanor of Aquitaine, D.D.R. Owen’s book, Eleanor of Aquitaine is also an excellent read. For information regarding the filming of Lion In Winter, the Internet Movie Database at provides a wealth of information.